Those Talking the ESSA Law Talk Are Not Walking the ESSA Law Walk


July 26, 2017

A high-decibel throng of advocates is trying to make the case that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has overstepped its role in its reviews of state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. But look closely and you’ll find that many of those talking the ESSA law talk are not walking the ESSA law walk.

For example, in criticizing ED state plan reviews, Senate HELP Committee Chair and ESSA co-author Lamar Alexander recently said: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully.” This is the same Lamar Alexander, however, who told a gathering of state school board leaders to “’assume that the U.S. Department of Education will say ‘yes’ to your ESSA plans.”

Alexander does rightly position the ESSA statute as being dispositive on questions regarding ED review of state plans. Because Alexander insisted that ESSA meet his “national school board test,” the federal guardrails that ESSA does establish are of heightened importance. But this makes the second statement patently false. The law says a lot of things and, even with the ample flexibility it provides, “every state plan will be approved” is not one of them. Some advocates have followed Alexander’s lead by putting some key statutory provisions in their crosshairs and claiming that they’re not statutory provisions at all.

Exhibit A: Academic Proficiency. Over at Flypaper, Brandon Wright tries to explain “How states can avoid proficiency rates when measuring academic achievement under ESSA.” The answer is: they can’t. And the proof runs in a very blatant way throughout Wright’s post:

First, Wright cites ESSA law which he acknowledges “plainly says that state accountability systems must gauge students’ ‘academic achievement,’ and that this must be measured, at least in part, ‘by proficiency on…annual assessments.’” [emphases added]. The ESSA statute, in fact, uses the term “shall” not “must.” But neither leaves much room for interpretation.

Second, Wright follows this statutory proof point with a section that begins “Proficiency rates: Allowed but to be avoided.”¹ The term “shall” (or “must,” if you prefer) seems to have morphed into meaning something that’s optional.

Third, Wright then praises plans from states such as Washington, DC and Louisiana that not only include proficiency but weight it (as the law requires) significantly, along with other indicators that thoughtfully address concerns about the prior law’s focus on “proficiency-only.”

Fourth, Wright, despite the title of his post, sends mixed signals on whether states can or should avoid proficiency altogether. Wright argues:

“According to accountability expert Morgan Polikoff, ‘the best approach for measuring student achievement levels for accountability purposes under ESSA is to use average scale scores.’ When schools maximize achievement for every single student, average scale scores give them credit for doing so, regardless of how high or low performing their students might be.”

While maximizing achievement for each student is one way to raise scale score averages, it’s not the only way. One can also raise average scale scores by focusing on students within a narrow band of achievement. Generally speaking, the less ambitious the benchmark is for improvement, the easier it would be to meet it by focusing on only a subset of students. Colorado is one state with a plan now under review that is a ”perfect storm” for this bad policy scenario: 1) unambitious goals; 2) scale scores with no anchor to proficiency; and, 3) weak attention to the achievement levels of historically disadvantaged subgroups.

Wright quotes Connecticut’s argument that “Webster’s dictionary defines proficiency not only as a state of being proficient, but also as an advancement in knowledge or skill,” and that scale scores are “the most accurate measure of a student’s proficiency.” He goes on to state that “[w]e at Fordham buy that argument.” However, almost everywhere, elsewhere, “proficiency” and “growth” or “advancement” are pitted against each other and defined as very different things. Just as they are in the statute.

One can understand how Wright might be confused. Even high-profile reviews of state plans have pulled punches on the proficiency issue. The report by the Collaborative for School Success and Bellwether Education notes, for example, both that the law requires proficiency and that Colorado’s plan does not include it, but words it in such a way that a reader could easily misunderstand that Colorado’s plan is clearly out of compliance.

No law is perfect, but on issues like proficiency, ESSA reflects a good deal of thought on where the old law fell short and on how to balance bright line accountability requirements with ample state flexibility. The advocates calling for ED adherence to the ESSA statute are right to do so, but they’re doing everyone – most importantly those students who are the intended beneficiaries of the law – a disservice by spreading misinformation about what the law says and what it doesn’t.

¹ We’re setting aside for now the fact that Wright, as others have done, cherry picks the research literature in support of his argument, (the study he cites is based on interviews with teachers and school leaders and classroom observations in one school; other, larger studies, including one on 4 states, reach different conclusions) and overlooks many reasons why proficiency is a necessary, albeit perhaps insufficient, measure of academic achievement.

A Capitol Hill veteran, Barone was a top education advisor to the late Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) and to Congressman George Miller (D-CA), former Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. Before his entry into Washington politics, Charles was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. He has a doctorate in Clinical/Community Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park.